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4 Anarchist Lessons For A Successful Business And Life

Ari Weinzweig
Written by Ari Weinzweig December 04, 2019

How an anarchist who died 42 years before we opened our business has had a surprising impact on the way Zingerman’s works.

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A few months ago, writer Tracie McMillan put out a piece in Food & Wine called “19 Great Restaurants to Work For.” Zingerman’s was on the list. Dozens of factors have gone into making our organizational ecosystem one that won Tracie’s kind words. Many, I’d guess, we have in common with the other 18 places on the list—good intentions, hard work, a spirit of generosity, a positive belief in people, and a desire to help folks overcome the many social barriers that get in their way as they attempt to live healthy and rewarding lives. But I’m betting big bucks that there’s one thing that’s not in common—it’s the inspiration of an anarchist woman whose books aren’t on a single business school reading list.

Emma Goldman

To the casual observer, someone who knows little about me, or about Zingerman’s, other than articles that appear in the national press and business school case studies attesting to our “success,” Emma and I would probably seem an unlikely professional pairing. The world at large—in her era and still now—stereotypes anarchism as a state of chaos and intentional disorganization, the hallmarks of which would be angry hooligans running wild, excessive rock throwing, and extraneous acts of violence. At the turn of the 20th century, if anarchism and business interacted, it was almost always in anger and opposition—mostly the two were made out to be mortal enemies. The business world generally took advantage of its employees in the interest, solely, of enriching its owners. Anarchists fought back, speaking out for autonomy, freedom, self-respect, better work conditions, a commitment to quality, cooperative ownership, and greater equity. Of all the anarchists of that era, probably the least likely to be invited into a business setting would have been Emma Goldman. When it became known Emma was expected in town, local police forces went on high alert. She was banned from speaking so many times I’m sure she lost count. In 1908 the Montréal newspaper La Croix called her “a veritable fury unchained.”

In 1908, William Marion Reedy, then publisher of the St. Louis Mirror, said Emma Goldman was “8,000 years ahead of her time.” Reedy was responding to the nearly universal criticism of Goldman from the country’s conservative establishment. I love the spirit of what he said. But upon further reflection, I feel like Reedy was off by about 7,900 years. I believe, with great enthusiasm, that Emma Goldman’s time is now! Many of her insights and beliefs form the framework for much of what we now know as “sustainable,” “progressive,” or “positive” business. The then controversial principles she put forward back in her own era, today offer us a healthy recipe for leading positive, meaningful lives. My proposal is that Hoover’s heretical villain could become the 21st century’s prophet of progressive organizational thinking. As crazy as it would have sounded when she was alive, my belief is that applying Emma Goldman’s ideas in the business world would be a really good idea!

June 27, 2019 was the 150th anniversary of Emma’s birthday—she was born in 1869 in Kovno, Lithuania. Having spent years studying, learning from and applying her insights, I have to wonder. What if Emma Goldman’s books had become progressive business classics, the forerunners of thoughts that later came out in the work of Jim Collins, Peter Block, Peter Koestenbaum, or Bo Burlingham? A longtime editor-at-large for Inc. Magazine and a fellow anarchist in his youth, Bo told me about ten years ago that, “The thing with the anarchists was that they could never figure out how to take their ideas and really make them a reality. You guys at Zingerman’s have actually figured out how to do that. The anarchists—at least the ones you’re quoting—had the right yo-yo but they couldn’t come up with the right string. That is, they had the right idea, but no venue or mechanisms for applying it. You’ve figured out the right venue (business) and a whole slew of mechanisms that actually allow you to bring these ideas to reality.”

4 Anarchist Lessons For A Successful Business And Life
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Four anarchist lessons for business and life

What about Emma’s words made such a big impact? How would all this look—or really, how does it look—when we put it to work in a modern day, real life, real food, real people, real money business? In examining an extensive collection of her work, came up with “18 Anarchist Lessons for Business and Life” which, if we were to apply them in the modern work world would work wonders for the quality of all our lives! Below are brief comments about the first four on the list. The other 14 can be found listed at the bottom of the article here, and are dealt with in greater depth in the pamphlet, “Going into Business with Emma Goldman.”

1. Design work that brings joy, purpose, and creative passion

“[Our] goal is the freest possible expression of all the latent powers of the individual . . . [which is] only possible in a state of society where man is free to choose the mode of work, the conditions of work, and the freedom to work. One to whom the making of a table, the building of a house, or the tilling of the soil, is what the painting is to the artist and the discovery to the scientist—the result of inspiration, of intense longing, and deep interest in work as a creative force.” As soon as I read that statement—from Emma’s 1910 volume, Anarchism and Other Essays—I transposed her hundred-year-old words into what we had happening here in our own workplace. It was a clear and compelling connection to our efforts to create work that helps people feel fulfilled, find meaning, and become “artists” in all they do. What Emma advocated would be right at home in a modern day curriculum for caring, progressive, business owners. Imagine if what she’d described in 1910 had become the norm in the American workplace?

2. Don't just teach people how to do a job, help them learn to run the business

“The human mind,” Emma long ago observed, “cannot endure sameness and monotony.” And yet, that was exactly the result of so much of the specialization that emerged from the Industrial Revolution. Most employees were relegated to remote corners of the intellectual life of the organization of which they were a part. Emma’s approach was the opposite: “Anarchism aims to strip labor of its deadening, dulling aspect, of its gloom and compulsion.”

3. Build an organization that helps people be themselves

“There exists an erroneous conviction,” Emma explained, “that organization does not encourage individual freedom and that, on the contrary, it causes a decay of individual personality. The reality is, however, that the true function of organization lies in personal development and growth . . .” The statement is from the talk she gave—co-presenting with Max Baginski—at the International Anarchist Congress in Amsterdam in 1907, entitled “Individuality, Autonomy and Organization.” In the last year or two, Emma’s statement has pushed me to take that intention even further—to consciously commit to helping people to become themselves. The organization, as we also see it, exists so that everyone who’s a part of it will be better off. As I write today, that commitment is being drafted into our still-in-the-works organizational vision for 2032.

4. Make business a tool for positive change where everyone comes out ahead

“Anarchism,” Emma argued adamantly, “struggles for a form of social organization that will ensure well-being for all.” This idea of creating broad-based benefits for all of our stakeholders has been a part of our philosophy at Zingerman’s since we opened in 1982—crafting a business whose commitment was to help everyone it touched!

Anarchism as an answer

Emma wrote that, “You cannot exterminate Anarchism because it embodies man’s highest aspirations towards liberty, well-being and the enjoyment of life. That is anarchism.” She said “anarchism”—I’d call it “sustainable business.” And better still, a “well-lived life.” It’s also, I would argue, a healthy manifestation of human nature. Building an organization that is focused, not on command and control, but instead on collaboration and care, on maximizing freedom for those who work there, and creating well-being and, what I would now call “good work,” is the whole point of our existence.

Although it’s little known in the business world, maybe anarchism is the answer to helping engage employees in new and meaningful ways. Here’s a bit of what Amanda Peters, who cooks the line at our little Korean restaurant, Miss Kim, shared on the subject:

“I was about 6 when I discovered punk music, and the one thing I was drawn too was a pattern of anarchist beliefs. Even amongst other ‘punks’ I feel as if I stand alone/isolated; Anarchism is the only area in which I feel as if I am ‘home.’ I have always considered myself as someone who found comfort in truth that others barely speak, and an understanding I rarely see, but the 'lack of' becomes my biggest inspiration to do and create. I had conservative parents and Slavic immigrant grandparents; so when I approached them at 11 and expressed my intense need to be a musician and artist my parents were extremely disappointed in me. They had always hoped I’d become a doctor; but I always believed that I was meant for more than just being a doctor. There’s a value in philosophers and writers that gets overlooked by most. I have always believed that I had something to say and not even my conservative parents could stop me, not even I can stop me. And THAT, to me, is anarchism. That the laws/rules we create within ourselves can be broken, and we as individuals can be set free. It’s women like Emma Goldman that have given me the reminder of that fire that has gotten me this far.”

Her comments are illuminating in terms of how all this stuff can play out positively in the workplace, attract great people, build intrinsic motivation, and more. I should add, by the way, that Amanda is amazing to work with: she’s smart, eager to learn, emotionally intelligent, incredibly quick, a great cook, creative, committed to quality, and very collaborative! Don’t we all want more people like that?

The “18 Anarchist Lessons for Business and Life” from Emma Goldman

  1. Design work that brings joy, purpose and creative passion
  2. Don’t just teach people how to do a job, help them learn to run the business
  3. Build an organization that helps people be themselves
  4. Make a business a tool for positive change where everyone comes out ahead
  5. You Need Great People to Make a Great Organization
  6. Share an Inspiring Vision of the Future
  7. Tap the Powerful Nature of Purpose
  8. Don’t Just Enforce, Engage!
  9. Choose Quality Over Quantity
  10. Create Creativity
  11. Practice Continuous Improvement
  12. Collaboration Counts; Diversity and Discussion Make a Meaningful Difference
  13. Honor the Power of Beliefs in Business
  14. Training Is Terrific
  15. Don’t Settle for So-So When You Can Go for Greatness!
  16. It’s All About Self-Awareness
  17. Ends and Means Must Be Congruent
  18. Put Autonomy into Practice
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This blog post is excerpted from Ari’s newly-released pamphlet “Going into Business with Emma Goldman; 18 Anarchist Lessons for. Life and Business.” The pamphlet and Ari’s other books about progressive business are available at zingermanspress.com. To reach Ari directly for further conversation and questions, email him at ari@zingermans.com.

Written by Ari Weinzweig
Ari Weinzweig
I'm the co-founding partner of the Zingerman's community.
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